A Conspiracy Theory Researcher Falls Victim to Conspiracy Theories: Intimidated Journal to Retract Lewandowsky Paper

March 21, 2014 | 2:03 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

A social science journal will soon retract a paper not because the research is flawed but because the journal fears being exposed to legal risks under antiquated (and since corrected) British libel law, according to Desmogblog and the paper’s lead author. Such a retraction would reflect badly on the journal and may set a terrible precedent. Papers should be withdrawn based on significant concerns with the quality of the research, not based on threats.

The science of conspiracy theories

Scientists working in diverse disciplines, from medical researchers to environmental scientists, are no strangers to conspiracy theories about their work. Several prominent climate scientists have been subject to allegations of many types of scientific misconduct, and some people turn to conspiracy theories when those allegations are found to lack merit.

In 2012, cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues published a paper in Psychological Science on conspiracy theories among those who do not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. The paper drew significant attention (perhaps in part because of its provocative title).  Many who don’t accept mainstream climate science bristled at being associated with people who reject other established science, such as the fact that we landed on the Moon.

Interestingly, some of the climate “skeptics” that were the subject of the paper then proceeded to unwittingly validate the study by relentlessly attacking Lewandowsky, his research methods, and the University of Western Australia, the university that employed him.

Building at the University of Western Australia

The University of Western Australia is standing up for one of its cognitive scientists who was attacked after writing a paper analyzing the actions of conspiracy theorists. The journal where he and colleagues published the research is not. Photo: DonPugh via Flickr

And what did these new attacks give the researchers? More data. Lewandowsky et al. subsequently analyzed these attacks and published a second paper in another journal titled “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.” This second paper (and the researchers, and the universities) were again subject to vitriolic attacks. In addition to over-the-top name calling and threats, critics again questioned the scientists’ ethics and research methods. None of those complaints were upheld by the researchers’ host institutions.

But this time, the journal—Frontiers in Psychology—caved under the pressure, and, citing “complaints,” provisionally removed the paper from its website. It is now expected the article will be withdrawn, despite the fact that Lewandowky’s university found that he had not violated any ethics rules or its code of conduct for research. According to Lewandowksy, the journal recognized this fact and will issue the following statement:

“In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.”

The university’s general counsel went considerably farther in a note to the professor:

“I’m entirely comfortable with you publishing the paper on the UWA web site. You and the University can easily be sued for hurt feelings or confected outrage, and I’d be quite comfortable processing such a phony legal action.”

That’s incredibly strong language from a university lawyer—at least in the United States, they are generally considerably more restrained. (As an aside, I’ve wanted to go to Perth ever since I met a wonderful Australian on a long-distance Amtrak train in 2001. It’s good to know that one of the city’s universities, at least based on this one data point, could be a nice place to work).

The Australian Psychological Society is also expected to speak out against the retraction. “It is concerning that some scientific journals feel sufficiently threatened by potential liability fears to not publish articles with ‘inconvenient information’ about climate change,” wrote two senior APS staff in a letter provided to me the author (the letter has not yet been published). “We…hope this does not signal a wider trend in publishing policies at a time when the world sorely needs its scientists to be free to disseminate socially relevant research findings without fear or favor.”

What could have been done better

Attacks on scientists are nothing new, and those who do high-profile research related to climate change often face politicians and ideologues trying to discredit them and their work. Social scientists such as Lewandowsky are naturally curious about why people reject established science on this topic. Their work is important because it helps us understand how we might be able to have rational, fact-based discussion about how to best respond to climate change.

Admittedly, the authors poked a stick at a hornet’s nest in their first study and got a predictable reaction, and poked it again to see if there was a persistent pattern. The evidence they gathered indicates that there is such a pattern. Could these studies have been stronger? Sure. And that’s true of nearly every study.

Perhaps the social scientists could also examine the degree of conspiracy ideation among those who accept climate science, for example. In that case, “conspiracies” are usually focused on the fossil fuel industry, which has, of course, historically opposed both action on climate change and pushed out misinformation on climate change research.

It’s also worth noting that there was at least one factual error in the second paper, which was subsequently corrected (and that’s how science should work).

But here’s the most important point: journal editors were clearly unprepared for the blowback they would receive, and had other, better options to deal with it than retracting the paper. If they want to fairly represent the comments, they easily could have published a piece that represented the views of the paper’s critics and allowed Lewandowsky to respond. It’s perfectly reasonable to raise substantive objections to the research–such as fact-checking, sampling bias and intentionality–as happens in papers from many scientific disciplines that are published, argued over, and considered during the scientific process.

This is yet another example of why researchers, journals, and universities need to be sufficiently prepared to effectively respond to outside scrutiny of their work. Sometimes that scrutiny is warranted and adds to public understanding, but in other cases, such as this one, it can be distracting and frivolous.

This guide presents a starting point, and as evidenced by this sad episode, journals that public academic research should pay close attention when their peers and authors are attacked. We must figure out how to better protect the scientific enterprise moving forward.